I’ve been around for thirty years. I don’t feel a typical sense of loss (if this blog’s taught you anything, I hope it’s that I’ve been racing away from youth with glee and can’t wait to replace nights in bars with nights of playing elaborate card games at home), but I do feel a lot of responsibility. It seems that many consider this age one’s solidification, that by now we ought to have made a path that we plan to stick to. And I have felt the weight of the expectation.
And I have started a path. But I don’t have the sense of accomplishment one might imagine.
I am getting married in a couple of months, but that’s not worthy of a medal. That’s the symbolic beginning of a (hopefully) long string of opportunities to do the right thing, to grow, and to work hard in finding meaning that serves more than myself. A lot of emphasis of success in life is placed on this one event, but really, it’s not a done deal just to have someone who wants to marry you. Yes, I have felt the validation of that love, and I understand the itching, angry desire to find and hold it. But the real accomplishment will be ten, twenty years from now. THIRTY years from now. There’s no one in the world better for me than Jan. But I have to be amazing, too. And this year I feel a strong imperative to be the kind of person with the maturity, grace, and true strength to do what it takes to make this what it can be — not just today, but for decades to come.
And on this path I’ve somehow stumbled upon the grad school program of my dreams.
But I didn’t do that alone. On paper, I was never the likeliest candidate. Through a handful of very important friendships and the dozens of conversations we’ve had during times of transformation, I became who I am and who would stand before an admissions committee under scrutiny. I feared graduate school for years. I am not brave for finally deciding to enroll as much as a very humbled woman. I wouldn’t be at this point without very specific help from those who knew what to say and how to say it to push me away from mediocrity. I couldn’t have made the decision to do this without the sacrifices of a person who works hard enough to support us both while I do it.
So I am thirty, and I am proud to be pursuing my dream, but I don’t think it makes me a better person than anyone who isn’t. I have a sense of gratitude that is beyond description when considering the circumstances that made this possible. Because for a long time I didn’t dream. And now that I am again, I take the responsibility to do with it unsurmountable good very seriously.
Thirty is not an arrival point. This idea that we are who we will be forever at this point is infuriating. No matter what it is I want for myself, it will be a long road to achieve it, because I want more than things or mere milestones. Getting what I want isn’t enough; nothing will ever be enough if I still have blood pumping through my veins and people I love. In my twenties, I thought I was capable of everything. But I did little with that inflated sense of myself, and I shrunk each time my potential waned in favor of comfort. I haven’t failed enough in my life, and I think it’s stunted my growth and my learning. Who I will be for myself and others will be defined not by my intentions, but by my actions.
So now that I am here, at a point so many have used to reflect before me, I’m not celebrating what I’ve done or who I am today. I am charged with the hefty task of never being complete, of never forgetting that there’s work to be done in doing with the privilege of this short time, inside of this small punctuation mark within history, something virtuous. Something lasting. Every day. Until the end.
Drunk after a night of celebrating Barbara’s retirement, two birthdays, admission to my top choice grad school, and the general improvements of weather, Jan and I read poetry in bed. The selection was Le Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire. The title, meaning Flowers of Evil, only slightly describes just how dark — and dare I say seductive — the selections are. Jan has a background in poetry (I almost successfully convinced him to submit some to a national contest in March), so when he reads it aloud, there’s more rhythm and drama in the oration. Like reading a second language in front of the class, I falter a bit more and question the line breaks in places where, were I to do this more often, I would not. Luckily, being the worse poetry reader in the relationship is much like being worse at a chore in childhood — getting off the hook is oh-so-sweet. The sound of Jan’s chest like a soft Caribbean drum while he read to me is the definition of soothing. I fell asleep with a carousel of new verses and romantic hymns buzzing around my head. As a younger woman I woefully imagined what it might be like to sleep next to someone, and today I want to go back and tell her that it’s not just about sharing space. It’s a sacred place to share one’s deepest emotions — it’s where dreams come true. I know she’d believe me, but if she knew what I know now about princes and magic and the protection of a real man, perhaps she would have written more poetry.
Below is my favorite selection from Les Fleurs du Mal translated by Richard Howard. I will try to share more throughout National Poetry Month, and I hope you’ll scour the Internet a bit for some inspirational material or head over to your nearest public library to indulge a bit. It’s really so nice.
My darling was naked, or nearly, for knowing my heart
she had left on her jewels, the bangles and chains
whose jingling music gave her the conquering air
of a Moorish slave on days her master is pleased.
Whenever I hear such insolent harmonies,
that scintillating world of metal and stone
beguiles me altogether, and I am enthralled
by objects whose sound is a synonym for light.
For there she lay on the couch, allowing herself
to be adored, a secret smile indulging
the deep and tenacious currents of my love
which rose against her body like a tide.
Eyes fixed on mine with the speculative glare
of a half-tamed tiger, she kept altering poses,
and the incorporation of candor into lust
gave new charms to her metamorphoses;
calmly I watched, with a certain detachment at first,
as the swanlike arms uncoiled, and then the legs,
the sleek thighs shifting, shiny as oil,
the belly, the breasts — that fruit on my vine –
clustered, more tempting than wicked cherubim,
to undermine what peace I had achieved,
dislodging my soul from its rock-crystal throne
of contemplation, once so aloof, so serene.
As if a new Genesis had been at work,
I saw a boy’s torso joined to Antiope’s hips,
belying that lithe waist by those wide loins . . .
O the pride of rouge upon that tawny skin!
And then, the lamp having give up the ghost,
the dying coals made the only light in the room:
each time they heaved another flamboyant sigh,
they flushed that amber-colored flesh with blood!
At my bridal shower, my Mom passed down the magical wands that were my Grandma Jolly’s baking and cooking spoons. Many crumbles, pies, cakes, cookies, bars, puffs and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink casseroles were consumed from the hard work of these otherworldly utensils. The first baked good I’m going to make with them is a cake. For my 30th birthday.